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Turning on a Dime: Paying People in Occupy Wall Street

The below is the first in a series of articles on Money and Movements soon to come on, that address the issues of resource allocation and financial compensation in movement contexts. Check out Part II, here.

Earlier today, a fellow member of the Occupy Wall Street press team, Linnea Palmer Paton, sent me a fascinating economics article about pro-social behavior, or "voluntary behavior intended to benefit  other people or society as a whole." She cited John Boikout's Creating Sustainable Societies, which interpretated the researchers' key conclusions, thus:

  • Pro-social behavior is affected by reciprocity. If an individual feels that his pro-social behavior is appreciated and helpful to the recipient, he will be more willing to continue it.

  • Many people are averse to inequalities. They see them as unfair and will act to reverse them.

  • Some people show pro-social behavior because they care about their reputation.

  • Motivations can interfere with one another. For example, paying volunteers a small sum can sometimes lead to reduced volunteer effort. Apparently this is because reward for self-interest begins to crowd out other internal rewards.

One year ago, the question of resource allocation was a central topic of discussion in Occupy Wall Street (and with Occupy Sandy, the topic has reared its head once more). At the height of the debate, I planned to meet with Leah Hunt Hendrix (a fellow member of the Outreach Working Group) to brainstorm some ways to deal with one of the questions that had recently come up: Should individuals get compensated financially for their work with Occupy?

Our move was in response to a new development: Funders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had decided to establish a donor-advised board called OMG (Occupy Money Group), with a central office, that would direct the messaging of the movement. They would select staff to run the office and OMG would select projects to support.

So Hunt-Henrix and I carved out time for a late-night meeting aimed at solutionary consideration of the emerging discussions around resource allocation and power consolidation in Occupy Wall Street. We invited whoever was nearby and interested, to join in, including Gregg Osofsky, Brooke Lehman, Alexa Bradley, Andy Smith and a few others who happened to be around. Hunt-Hendrix wrote a letter, and a few of us offered edits. After we sent the letter to Ben and Jerry, I drafted the below statement based on the letter, which is in essence as relevant as ever.

Statement on Centralized Resource Allocation and Occupy Wall Street:

From the first days of the Occupy Wall Street movement, many people in the United States and abroad have been generous with their time, with their money, with in-kind donations of all kinds – from ponchos and tents to food, housing and meeting space. But above all the most valuable of currencies circulating in the Occupy Wall Street movement comes from the people participating in the movement themselves – sharing their skills, their passion, and their commitment to the principles underlying this fight for economic justice.

As valuable as all the resources lent to Occupy Wall Street are, none alone can sustain this movement the way that the passion of our participants can.

A range of funders have offered to pay particular OWS participants so that they can continue their work within the movement. However, as very few people active full-time in a movement can get hired, this may create a 1% within our ranks. Our leaders should not be chosen by funders in this way, any more than our mission should be driven by funding. Selecting specific OWS participants for paid positions creates an atmosphere of competition for jobs, in a movement founded on the principle of cooperation.

Some funders' desire to hire staff from within OWS also threatens to steer us towards becoming a finite institution that must protect and promote its “brand”. Dissolution into an NGO structure would transform OWS from a movement of the impassioned, to an organization of the dutiful, a movement for all, to an organization of staff. While creating traditional NGO structures may seem like the obvious default setting to move towards, our view is that there are plenty of existing organizations with great missions and skilled staff people – and there is no reason to duplicate their efforts or structures or to compete with them for funding.

If NGOs form in the name of OWS and attempt to make decisions for the rest of us, splits could occur.

Sustaining individuals is not the same thing as sustaining the movement itself.

To sustain this movement, what is needed is less money, than a sustained and consistent commitment to fighting economic inequality, driven by a spirit of accessibility, transparency, creativity and mutual aid.

We appreciate the continued support of people all across the country who contribute their hard-earned money to this movement. We welcome those that engage as truly equal OWS participants, committed to building a more level playing field in principle and in action, and conscious of their comparative advantages. And we invite all those that wish to work with us–whether from within this movement or as outside supporters–as we seek new, revolutionary, equitable models for resource distribution.

Seeking compensation for one's work is one thing; seeking to gain from the labor of others is another.

No "visionary" or "doer" can do it alone; we rely on the labor of thousands, millions, to exercise our vision.

To make a movement really come to life, we need to make ample space for new leaders to emerge, and the way to encourage this is through a leadership rotation/distributed leadership. We made this clear in our letter to Ben and Jerry:

...we acknowledge that the desire to provide stipends and salaries is a desire to help support and sustain the work of OWS.  It is acknowledged in the movement that some individuals with a sense of leadership capacity already fundraise from without, for themselves. That is their choice and their prerogative. However, hiring from within OWS has the potential to be a deeply divisive step....Rather than developing the notion of a group of visionary leaders from whom movements spring, OWS’ aim is to create a space for the emergence of as-yet unactivated individuals to discover their leadership capacity....Since not everyone can be hired, it may create the impression that the work of some is valued more than the work of others....

Thus while we acknowledge that enabling people to continue working for the movement is important, selecting particular individuals for stipended positions may instead lead many others to leave it.

This article is the first in a series about resource allocation and financial compensation in people-powered movements. Read on to learn more as we address the NGOization of self-organized bodies and unaffiliated networks, strategies for addressing money in movements, and more.

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